Thursday, November 13, 2003

Token and Roving Enterprises – the first Australian showbiz conglomerate?

Token is a Melbourne-based artists agency and management company, specialising in comedians. In the American entertainment industry, there is a watertight distinction between agents and managers – in particular, agents are precluded from undertaking producer roles, formally or informally. Such a rule – imposed and enforced by the entertainment industry itself – does seem justified when one considers the sheer market power of the handful of top US talent agencies.

Even working within their confines, the American mega-agencies have perfected the art of packaging talent. The shpeil goes something like this: “You can have Nicole for “Citizen Kane – the Sequel”, but only if you agree to make “Lethal Boredom IV” (a script by one of our, ahem, new clients). Oh, and if we’re giving you Nicole, when we have all but already promised her to the producers of “Godzilla 2003” for next Fall, then we insist on getting Gary Coleman on our books before he inks that new reality TV series, “Teenage Crack Whore” with your cable subsidiary”.

Such dealmaking is a long way from Australia’s sleepy entertainment industry. Almost every big actor and writer has an agent, but the agencies are not fiercely competitive among themselves. As long as bulk of their client rolls are in work, the agents are happy (reeling in their ten percents), and, for producers, it has always been a bit of a buyers’ market – there are very few, if any, “must-have” marquee-name actors based in Australia; most are quite generic, in the sense that, if Sigrid from Agency A is not available (or is too expensive), then Kerry from Agency B will do just fine instead.

Enter Token. Until a few years ago, Token was a booking agency shopfront for the live shows of a few Melbourne stand-up comedians, who had all hit the (comparative) big time in the mid 90s. Then, in the late 90s came Rove, a TV (and now also radio) juggernaut whose eponymous host and three co-presenters were all taken on as Token clients, resulting in its talent roll almost doubling overnight.

Because of the (relatively unusual, particularly for someone in his 20s) fact of Rove having always been, and still remaining, his own producer, Roving Enterprises is a small, tightly-managed ship. “Managed” it is, nonetheless, by Kevin Whyte, Token’s founder and principal. Unusually for a TV or radio network, when buying output from Roving Enterprises, the deal is fully self-contained; there is no middle-man production company that has had to start by going agency-knocking to cast its “Sigrid” or “Kerry”.

Not surprisingly then, with Token and Roving Enterprises working as commercial “islands” they have naturally become quite resourceful in packaging their existing talent. Indeed, there has been an multi-channel explosion of the Token-repped in the last few months:

- Merrick & Rosso – Sydney NOVA FM radio, and now Channel 9 celebrity figureheads

- Skithouse - Channel 10 (produced by Roving Enterprises and written by/starring by persons including the Token-repped Peter Helliar, Michael Chamberlin and “Tripod”).

- the 2Day FM breakfast show – to soon be helmed by the Token-repped Judith Lucy, Kaz Cooke, and Peter Helliar; a change which has resulted in the early departure of the (non Token-repped) Wendy Harmer.

These recent succeses are in addition to older, but continuing, broadcasting “feathers” in the Token cap, including:

- The Glasshouse – ABC TV (starring the Token-repped Dave Hughes, Corinne Grant and Wil Anderson)

- ABC JJJ breakfast show – co-anchored by the Token-repped Wil Anderson

- Melbourne NOVA FM breakfast show – co-anchored by the Token-repped Dave Hughes

In this light – and particularly with “Merrick & Rosso Unplanned” and “Skithouse” being pronounced immediate duds by critics, yet remaining on air depite this – a recent, rare retreat by Token talent is noteworthy: Token-repped Charlie Pickering, co-anchor of the ABC JJJ afternoon drivetime show, has been replaced with some crew from the non Token-repped “Chaser” team.

In summary, through a combination of agent and manager roles, Token has achieved remarkable results for its talent. Indeed, with the exception of the “Chaser” and “Kath and Kim” teams, it has a near-monopoly on the provision of comedy talent to Australia’s top two TV networks, and to the two most important young listener radio networks nationally. Working in an industry where airtime is precious and limited, Token has been prepared to play hard-ball against those not in its stable, as evidenced by the recent resignation of Wendy Harmer. Token’s success has also been in its deals not being merely inked, tried, and then quickly dropped; the adhesion of almost all its deals has allowed financial security for those on its talent roll, as well as an ever-building stream of ten-percents back to Token itself.

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